When I was in my 20s, a friend challenged me about the books I was reading. He said, they’re all by women authors. Do women (like me) only like to read works written by women?
I thought of this when I heard about the conference on narrative journalism at Boston University last weekend and the ruckus caused by keynote speaker Gay Talese, a pioneer in importing storytelling techniques from fiction to enliven magazine and newspaper writing. Asked whether there are female writers he admires, Talese told the room of about 600 men and women, no, there were none.
He has since said he misunderstood the question, and he thought the questioner was asking whether there were women journalists who had inspired him in his youth. Talese is 84, and it’s true that female journalists in the 1950s were more rare.
Still, his response, while perhaps candid, lacked grace. The greenest of public speaking consultants could have told him to pivot and answer the question as if it were phrased, is there anyone you admire today?
Talese might have mentioned journalist and screenwriter Nora Ephron, author of “When Harry Met Sally.” In a documentary about her life, “Everything Is Copy,” by her son Jacob Bernstein, Talese lavished praise on Ephron, specifically for the phase of her career as a magazine journalist.
Perhaps Talese isn’t as nimble onstage as when he has time to reflect. But I can still manage a pivot. Here is my own list of great women journalists who have influenced me.
Ellen Goodman and Erma Bombeck. Clearly, two very different writers, they are joined in my memory as writers my mother and I loved when I was growing up and read The Boston Globe at home. Goodman wrote columns about social change and progressive politics, once boldly comparing deniers of man-made global warming to deniers of the Holocaust. Bombeck was folksy, chronicling suburban family life with comic irreverence. Their heirs today are apparent in female columnists and mommy and daddy bloggers.
Betty Friedan. Her book “The Feminine Mystique” was published when I was 3. I grew up secure in its message that women should not allow society to tell them who they should be.
Gloria Steinem. Not for the usual reasons. Her 1992 book about believing in oneself, “Revolution From Within,” inspired me to value myself outside of a relationship when I was a single newspaper reporter in Los Angeles in the mid-1990s.
Linda Hossie, Maggie O’Kane, Mary McGrory and Mary Williams Walsh. These reporters wrote about systematic and organized rape as a weapon of ethnic cleansing during the Bosnian War. This was a time, in the early- to mid-1990s, when atrocities against women usually went unmentioned in war coverage.
Adrienne Rich. Although she had been writing since the 1950s, I discovered her books when I was a young mother in the late 1990s. Rich presented bracing truths about motherhood that I was reading nowhere else.
And, finally . . . the many amazing women journalists I’ve worked with through a half-dozen newspaper jobs. The ones whose adrenaline pumped when they pursued a story. The ones who patiently and persistently dug through data and documents, cajoled and protected sources, and who made that extra phone call to be sure they were fair to all sides. The ones whose writing was as vivid as a painting.
Yes, my male colleagues have been equally as skilled and dedicated. I’d be pulling a Talese if I didn’t say so.
Yet, even though one man on a stage may not always remember these women journalists — or if history gives them the slight — they have surely shaped their times.
Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.